In the American Southwest, the diversity of native plant species is threatened by the loss of ancient cultural knowledge. Native Seeds/SEARCH, a local group dedicated to strengthening food security, uses the indigenous technique of seed saving to prevent biocultural diversity loss.
Biocultural diversity describes the intermingling of humans with nature, in which culture and ecology flourish in unison. It arises from the evolution that occurs when an ecosystem and the human landscape combine. Every time a farmer selects a certain tree to replant because of the color of its fruit then uses those fruits in ritual, both the tree species and the farmer’s customs become more defined.
The American Southwest is a regional hotspot of biocultural diversity in which ancient civilizations used a range of available species to effectively define their society and build a nation of peoples. However, much of the ancestral knowledge connecting people to their native lands has eroded.
Seed saving, the tradition of passing on favorable plant seeds and crossbreeding for particular traits, is one particularly alarming loss. Heirloom seeds are being replaced by commercial varieties. According to Native Seeds/SEARCH, strengthening food security through seed conservation techniques aimed at the region’s distinctive plant diversity prevents against food security crises.
The ongoing loss of crop species found in the Southwest suggests a reduction in the genetic diversity in the region. Climate change, water shortages, and increasing pest and disease vectors threaten the ability of native peoples to eat natural, healthy foods. It could also signal potential crop failures and famines in the future. Native Seeds/SEARCH explains, “The resiliency of our food system depends on agricultural biodiversity, as farmers and breeders can draw on a myriad of genetic combinations to develop new varieties better adapted to changing climate conditions.”
According to the indigenous Tohono O’odham Nation’s tribal elders, “What we’re really looking for are the seeds for the foods our grandparents used to grow,” of which many are rare and endangered. Reestablishing the foods and traditional ingredients of native cultures inspires community members to plant these crops and share with their neighbors.
The basis for propagating the seeds lies not just in their physical distribution but also through education and training programs to help others preserve the rare natural resources of the Southwest. Native Seeds/SEARCH provides a seed library of nearly 2,000 heirloom and desert-adapted varieties of seeds. Anyone can choose from the ancient crops, wild species, and local varieties Native Seeds/SEARCH has collected so far. Examples of seeds include numerous corn varieties, beans, vegetables, melons, squash, and grains.
Native Seeds/SEARCH is comprised of an innovative conservation facility based in Tucson, AZ, featuring a host of educational initiatives, a seed library, and a conservation farm. The Native Seeds team helps communities develop culturally relevant solutions to strengthen the local food system. Their Seed School trains students in the history, ecology, and business of seed saving. Classes such as wild seed harvesting, small business education, and seed biology provide a basic understanding of how to save and care for seeds at home or as a career. To date, the program graduated over 350 people.